Carousel: 50th Anniversary Edition
On both stage, in 1945, and on screen, in 1956, the legendary musical partnership of composer Richard Rodgers and lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II followed up their resounding classic Oklahoma with the much beloved but also very, very odd tragedy Carousel. Based on Ferenc Molnár's play Liliom, Carousel chronicles a doomed relationship in a turn-of-the-19th-century Maine fishing town. When young and stubborn Julie Jordan (Shirley Jones) catches the eye of Billy Bigelow (Gordon MacRae), the handsome ne'er-do-well barker at the local carousel, she shrugs off the admonitions of her small-town peers and somehow convinces Billy to commit the single honorable act of his entire life: He marries her. But it's all downhill from there, as Billy apparently singularly skilled at carousel barking becomes a shiftless freeloader with a quick temper that fails to spare his beleaguered wife a smack every now and then. When Julie tells Billy she's pregnant, she expects the worst, and, but for a momentary surge of chivalry and excitement, Billy delivers, convinced that the only way he can support his progeny is by joining a hoodlum pal (Cameron Mitchell) in an act of armed robbery. As with most of Billy's plans, the heist goes awry and Billy dies from a self-inflicted wound. In the afterlife, however, Billy is granted a one-day return to Earth when his now-teenage daughter, Louise (Susan Luckey), desperately requires the guidance of the worst parent ever. Carousel is a most bizarre production in many respects, most of which are overlooked for its occasionally majestic music, which includes the classic Rodgers & Hammerstein tunes "If I Loved You," "Soliloquy," and the powerful anthem "You'll Never Walk Alone." But the story of the musical already unusual for its dour narrative is quite shocking by today's standards for both its frank depiction of an abusive marriage and for its heroine's even more frank rationalization (in the song "What's the Use of Wondrin'?") and even fetishization of the abuse (such as when the older and wiser Julie fondly waxes "It is possible, dear, for someone to hit you, hit you hard, and it not hurt at all"). While there is a lot of substance in the film's contrast between the troubled relationship of Julie and Billy and the happier coupling of Julie's friend Carrie (Barbara Ruick) with promising fisherman Enoch Snow (Robert Rounseville) demonstrating by example that the latter's plain hopes and simple dreams ("When the Children Are Asleep") bring greater rewards, while Julie's attraction to danger and Billy's grousing discontent comes to little good Hammerstein's adaptation and Henry King's direction accent the depiction of Carrie and Enoch with a pronounced sneer of condescending derision. It's a movie no father should ever want his daughters to see. Even with Billy's ultimate sliver of redemption (coming 15 years posthumously, which many might fairly consider too late) backed up with the stirring promise of "You'll Never Walk Alone" tugging at the heart-strings, Carousel feels like too much talent wasted on hopeless characters whose relentlessly poor choices start out sympathetic but quickly turn gratuitous and wind up simply tiresome. MacRae's marvelous performance of the anxious ode to impending fatherhood "Soliloquy" is the highlight, and the entire movie is visually quite toothsome, but the dance extravaganza "June is Coming Out All Over" comes off as mere filler, failing to move the story or otherwise meaningfully distract from this small town's army of exceedingly gay fishermen, and most of the other numbers are pleasant but musically unremarkable.
Carousel is given fine treatment in Fox's two-disc "50th Anniversary Edition." On the first disc, the feature is presented in a glorious anamorphic transfer (2.55:1) with audio remastered in Dolby Digital 5.1. As on the Oklahoma DVD, Shirley Jones is joined in a terrific commentary by film historian Nick Redmond, during which some discussion is given to Frank Sinatra's legendary late withdrawal from the male lead role, and the movie is also viewable in both score-only and sing-a-long modes. Disc Two of the set includes the full 1934 Fritz Lang drama Liliom (93 min., in French with English subtitles), plus the 23-min. featurette "Turns On The Carousel," recreations of the deleted songs "You're A Queer One Julie Jordan" and "Blow High, Blow Low," excerpts of the original Broadway cast performing "If I Loved You" and "You're A Queer One Julie Jordan," a Fox Movietone Newsreel about the film's premiere, still galleries, and a trailer. Dual-DVD slimline keep-case, or slimcase in Fox's "Rodgers and Hammerstein Collection" box-set.
Gregory P. Dorr
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